Cycling through the Atacama Desert

Where? San Pedro in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

When? August 2018

With whom? Martin and two hilarious Danes.

If you do the classic 3 day Salt Flat tour (read about day 1 and day 2), you will have the option in day 3 to get dropped at the Bolivia-Chile border to be taken back to Uyuni, from where the tour departed and has easy transport links to La Paz.

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We decided to explore this part of Chile and said goodbye to our new Russian honeymooning friends and our French travelling student friends to head across the border with our craycray Brazilian friends. This border is notorious for bribing tourists to cross, all we had to do was look to our left and see this poor Danish couple being absolutely mugged off and there was nothing we could do about it, so keep your wits about you. Top tip: make friends with some South Americans and keep your head down as you hand over your bribe money – we were charged about 300 BOBs (approx. £3.00) but others weren’t so lucky.

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The bus meandered through the mountains as we dropped from altitude and consequently warmed up, and the views are really worth paying attention. Top tip: When you arrive, don’t be fooled by the countless sales reps at the bus stop trying to get you to stay at their hostel/hotel. Make friends with people on the bus and agree somewhere to stay; you can get cheap deals on Hostelworld. The bus terminal is not a long walk to the centre of the small town in the middle of the desert, nor to Hostel Rural; a quirky, friendly and well-situated hostel, full of character, where we rocked up and asked for a room for a couple of nights.

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Atacama is one of the best places in the world to see the stars due to its location and lack of light pollution, so a big money maker is stargazing tours. There is, of course, the option to go alone, but we wanted access to the telescopes that comes included on the tour with all the constellation latest! We went with a tour company called ‘Una Noche con las Estrellas’ (a night with the stars) which included transport, snacks, wine, access to the telescopes and a guide to show us how to use them properly and explain exactly what we were looking at.

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With each tour there is a free photo with long exposure to capture the starry sky!

The best time for stargazing is when there is a new moon, but our timing didn’t quite work out like that and we got on one of the last tours before they closed for the full moon, as the visibility is low with so much light. Despite our mishap with the timings, we felt like we were seeing so much! We were so lucky to be seeing the rings of Saturn through an amazing telescope with an Argentinian singing (yelling) Beyoncé’s Single Ladies in my ear while I admired its astounding clarity. We were so amazed by the two different clusters of stars that the telescopes proffered in so much more detail than we could ever see with the naked eye, one in the shape of a butterfly and one that had over a million stars. It was quite literally other-worldly, and we topped off our amazing evening with the grand finale: the perfect view of the moon. We also ate our bodyweight in cheese and drank much Chilean wine. If you get cold, there are more blankets than people to wrap yourself in and continue enjoying your night!

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This was simply aiming my camera through the telescope at the moon!

There are so many tours that you can take from San Pedro, including the Salt Flats tour that we had just been on. One of the ones we took an interest in was the Valley of the Moon sunset tour. This mostly includes a bus ride that drives you from San Pedro, out to the desert and through the valley so that you can perch on a rock for an epic view of the sunset, to be brought back again. We decided that we were keen but wanted to see more of the valley than that up close, so recruited the aforementioned Danes to hire some bikes to cycle our way through the supposed driest place on earth.

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It looks flat but it’s an illusion

This way, we missed the queues, and in fact, all of the people, as we had the entire valley to ourselves. We found bikes for around $5 for the day and were off with our new Danish friends in tow swearing blind that they “didn’t cycle much at home”. (NB: “not cycling much at home” in for Danish people roughly translates as “It’s been a few years since I completed my last Tour De France”.)

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We all had the BEST time!

We were handed some way off-scale maps and made our way the 10km or 11km on good quality roads to the entrance of the park, where we were charged an entrance fee of 3,000 CHP (approx. £3.50).

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The views and overall surreal experience in the Valley of the Moon are the real appeal, rather than its arid reputation and having it to ourselves without the coach loads of tourists simply left us feeling like we were walking on a film set on Mars (or maybe the moon?)

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We were constantly surrounded by mountains

The road turns into dirt track as this is only now intended for tour buses with the necessary tyres for this kind of terrain. We had standard road bikes, so the tyres kept slipping on the sand. This was especially hard uphill, and quite fun downhill because the bike would slip out from under you at any point, leaving you faceplanting the floor.

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I ask myself sometimes, ‘why am I always a dick?’

If anyone tells you that this ride is flat, they are lying to you. It’s very very not flat. Despite these unexpected curveballs, cycling this route is so worth it with the freedom to stop wherever you want for as long as you want.

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Explorers: leaving the path set out for tourists to make our own way

The path takes you on almost a straight road to the end of the valley, where the tours would drop you off along with the other groups of tourists to view the sunset, but with a 10km bike ride each way plus the 5km in the valley itself, each way, we felt like we had earned our views with the added bonus of having them ALL to ourselves; we didn’t meet a single other person all day. Below is a guide of the detours you can take from the “road”.

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Our fave Danes

1) Salt Caves

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Exiting the cave

This will be your first stop on your right hand side just before a hill. As you walk in, it feels like a fortress with rock structures towering over you from all directions. Keep heading in and find the labyrinth of caves.

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There were very fun and had us contorting our bodies in different ways to squeeze through the gaps. There comes a point where you might think is the end of the caves, but keep going because there’s more, and you end up navigating your way through pitch black tunnels on all fours!

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We decided to turn our torches off at one point to see if we could navigate in the pitch black.

2) The Great Sand Dunes

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One of my favourite views in the world

These will be on your left hand side and are noticeable by the car park by the path. The path takes you around the back of the dunes and then up the side of it to the top. Here is a great view of the whole valley, which simply stunning.

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One of my favourite people in the world

Sand takes more energy walking uphill than on firm ground, so if you struggle then follow someone else up, stepping in their footsteps. They’ve done all the hard work for you.

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It is windy up there though so a jumper wouldn’t go amiss, which we didn’t have but stayed up there anyway because the views were so worth it.

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3) Amphitheatre

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Don’t expect a full on Roman amphitheatre (they didn’t make it as far as Chile). This stop is called so because of the huge protruding red rock that looks like an amphitheatre. It is natural made and really quite astounding for it to have formed in this shape, standing out in colour from its surrounding rock formations.

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The red rock was very impressive

4) Las Tres Marias

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You can see how hot it was from the moisture marks on the lens of the camera!

This is the last stop and the only place you would see on the sunset tour package, as it is absolutely breathtaking. Our photos don’t do it justice. We had seen online what we were looking for so when we veered round the corner and over the crest of the hill and saw it in the distance, we knew we were nearing the end of our cycle ride. We also saw that it was downhill for about a kilometre, and whilst downhill had been very entertaining, uphill sucked. Sod the uphill return journey for a barrel of laughs – we ditched our bikes and walked down.

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Don’t come here for the instashot, as none of us could accurately capture how surreal and beautiful it was. It was as if these rock for nations had grown like plants, leaning towards the sunlight, and each was dusted with salt resembling snow.

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We were glad we dropped our bike at the top of the hill as we walked back to them, all of us buzzing from our jam-packed day of exploring the desert. Cycling back was tough due to the uphills and our lack of water supply, but also due to cycling with Danes who were like those cyclists you find on a stock photo who are absolutely loving the challenge of the uphill sandy road that had no grip, and Martin and I their short frumpy friends struggling to move at all with our road bikes losing grip with every pedal.

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We laughed about it afterwards, when we returned our bikes to the store.

Info: you can hire a from many shops around San Pedro and they come in excellent condition with a repair kit in case of emergencies. Make sure a helmet is also included, which might come in handy for the caves! There are a number of cycle routes around the desert, for example, Death Valley, so in order to keep business bike rentals need to provide high quality bikes and service. You can hire any time from an hour to two days.

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It seemed to be full of different landscapes

There is a bus stop in San Pedro that allows you to travel. Most tourists got a bus down to Calama and flew, finding very cheap flights to other parts of Chile. We got a bus to Salta, ort next stop on our two-month adventure through South America.

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Tip of the week: HELMET! I would suggest taking ample water, but the number of times Martin and I have been short of supply on days like this is silly, and you would think we would learn from our mistakes. We don’t. Helmets are so important and some bike rental shops may not provide them, or provide some that fit poorly. Make sure you are happy with your helmet before you embark on your journey.

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Product of the week: The cycle ride was one of our highlights in South America, for the company and the views, but other than bike hire and entry, it was completely free. The stargazing tour was amazing, and although you can see stars without a guide, we had access to the telescopes that provided us with epic views of stars and planets that we had never seen before!

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